Brutal Gangs Terrorize Slum Residents in Kenya Over the past few months, human heads and other body parts have been turning up all over Nairobi. Authorities believe it's the work of the Mungiki, a mysterious, vaguely militaristic organization of mostly young Kenyan men.
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Brutal Gangs Terrorize Slum Residents in Kenya

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Brutal Gangs Terrorize Slum Residents in Kenya

Brutal Gangs Terrorize Slum Residents in Kenya

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

More than 100 brutal murders in and around Nairobi, Kenya, have residents there frightened. A dozen police officers were among the dead, as well as schoolchildren, and scores of people who live in that capital city's elaborate necklace of slums. The violence is gang-related, but that phrase never quite tells the story. The police lack answers, and in many cases, the only real pieces of evidence are severed human heads that are turning up all over town.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: The gangs of Nairobi sometimes borrow their names from other seemingly more frightening groups. There are the Baghdad Boys, for instance, as well as a gang that calls itself the Taliban - no relation. There's even a gang-filled slum in Nairobi that's known as Kosovo. But the gang that is at the center of Nairobi's current nightmare has the kind of down-home name that makes menace seemed ever so close. They are called Mungiki, which in the local language means the multitude.

Mr. DOMINIC WABALA (Investigative Reporter, East African Standard): People are being hacked and their bodies dumped. We're having people's heads sawed off. We're having heads being put on sticks and dumped next to provisional administration offices. It's getting a bit crazy.

THOMPKINS: Dominic Wabala is a longtime crime reporter for Kenya's largest newspaper chain. He says more than 20 Kenyans have lost their heads in recent months in connection with gang violence.

Mr. WABALA: The group seems to have infiltrated all sectors of society. Everybody seems to be at risk.

THOMPKINS: How big is the Mungiki? Well, that's a tough guess. Gang leaders boast that they number in the millions throughout Kenya's central province, the Rift Valley, and the capital city of Nairobi. Kenya's Human Rights Institute says the Mungiki are may be a mean hundred thousand, or fewer. What is known is that the group formed during a period of pitched ethnic fighting and economic hardship in Kenya in the late 1980s.

The Mungiki is populated overwhelmingly by the nation's largest ethnic group, called the Kikuyu, and the group is so secretive that a member could be standing next to you and you wouldn't know it. Whatever their initial ideology, today's Mungiki are synonymous with organized crime.

Mr. MUTUMA RUTEERE (Dean, Kenya Human Rights Institute): The ordinary Mungiki young person isn't someone you'd expect to find beheading somebody, so it is possible that it could be a small squad that is carrying out this kind of activities.

THOMPKINS: Mutuma Ruteere is dean of the Kenya Human Rights Institute in Nairobi. He's been studying the Mungiki for the past 10 years and says the leaders of the organization number fewer than 10. Ruteere says the rest of the multitudes survive on the extreme edges of life.

Mr. RUTEERE: Some of these young men actually start living for the first time by getting involved in these gang activities, these Mungiki. For the first time, they have hope; they have something they can do. I mean, these are young people who don't know what they are going to eat tomorrow. Policing is for the short term, but for the long term is really to try and give hope to the young people in this country.

THOMPKINS: Here, the poor live within eyeshot of the luxurious houses of business executives, well-paid foreigners and Kenya's pampered and ostentatious members of Parliament, the Mungiki want in.

To get where they are going, the Mungiki serve and target their neighbors in the area's teeming slums. Some slum residents showed up at a town meeting recently on the current insecurity. It began with a prayer.

Ms. SHAMSIA RAMADAN (Organizer, Citizens' Assembly): Dear Master, we place this country to your hands with all that is happening, dear Master. You see everything happen, you see the insecurity, you seeā€¦

THOMPKINS: Shamsia Ramadan is an organizer of the event.

Ms. RAMADAN: When I was growing up, yes, there were robberies, but they never had the guts to come when you are there, but wait when people are not there, break in and take away things. Nowadays, they do it when you are there. They even go ahead to rape the women. It keeps getting worse by the day.

THOMPKINS: Foreigners have not been subject to gang attacks. But Ramadan, who works for the not-for-profit group Citizens' Assembly, says this crime wave has the potential to ruin Kenya's prospects for tourism and investment.

Ms. RAMADAN: When a tourist hears that there's beheading in Kenya, in central province - to them they don't know central province, it is Kenya at the end of the day.

THOMPKINS: But in the immortal words of the underworld, this is business. The Mungiki manage rackets that earn them millions of dollars per year - protection for slum residents and businesses, neighborhood trash collection, and perhaps most importantly, a daily payoff from more than 30,000 small bus drivers here. And Kenyans pretty much put up with it.

Here's reporter Dominic Wabala again.

Mr. WABALA: They were easily accepted by the community because they were providing a service that was needed but lacking. And they just filled that gap, with a fee, of course.

THOMPKINS: Does your husband beat you? The Mungiki will make him stop. Does someone owe you money? The Mungiki will get it back for you. Do you want to run for political office? The Mungiki will get you votes. How do they do what they do? Don't ask.

But this year, when the Mungiki began demanding two times more from bus drivers, the drivers balked. That's when the orgy of violence began. That's when someone put an axe in the head of a 24-year-old bus conductor in a neighborhood called Banana Hill. Then they damn near cut his head off. The man's father considers himself lucky. The killers didn't make him hunt for missing pieces as they often do.

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) I think they do this so that you cannot easily identify with the people because they take the body parts to different places, so it's hard to identify them. I think maybe it's - that's their motive.

THOMPKINS: The dead man's father is an evangelical minister who does not want the family's name mentioned in this story. But one pastor's loss is apparently another pastor's good fortune.

Mr. NDURA WARUINGE (Founding Father, Mungiki): Due to the demonization of this organization, wherever I go, I wish I could walk with you along the street. People respect me, because they fear me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WARUINGE: So whatever they are doing now works for me completely. And I say that's God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: Ndura Waruinge is the founding father of the Mungiki who says he has since left the organization and started his own Christian evangelical church. He says he still benefits from the fear the group inspires. Here in one of Nairobi's most elegant hotels, a bevy of young waitresses fusses over his order for tea. Waruinge says the current cycle of viciousness is, in part, a result of the Mungiki leadership getting greedy. He says they're killing each other. Waruinge has ambitions to create a more fearsome organization. He says Jesus is the way.

Mr. WARUINGE: Jesus worked in myth. He creates 5,000 breads, 5,000 fish. Does that not create fear in you to fear that person? And that is how God works. God has no democracy. God doesn't know democracy. He tells you, you either follow me or you'll die.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: So for Waruinge, the Bible is not so much the story of God as it is how-to book for a Godfather. Waruinge says Christian evangelism will help him create a national Mungiki organization that crosses all the ethnic lines of Kenya.

The police say they have arrested more than 3,000 gang members or associates. But their tactics have been criticized as overly combative, targeting lowly foot soldiers.

Eric Kiraithe is police spokesman.

Mr. ERIC KIRAITHE (Police Spokesman): In a war, generals are hardly killed. But you know that the war has been lost when the foot soldiers can no longer attack. And we believe that it's just a matter of time.

THOMPKINS: But the Mungiki may have an ace up their sleeves. The group enjoys political clout in Kenya, having helped sway enough voters to get many politicians elected. So far, government leaders, aside from Kenya's president, have been strangely muted in their response to the crime wave. 2007 is an election year.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Nairobi.

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